Dorian’s boot falls thudded like blunt hammer blows on the stairway’s thick green carpet. His fingers squeaked along the polished handrail. As he reached the landing, the banshee’s cry squelched those comforting, earthly sounds. Dorian had heard many an off-putting noise in his day. The roar of a dragon. The cries of battlefield wounded. The squeal of a tradacta, the vicious, flightless bird of the Scaled Mountains. Nothing compared to the shrieks coming from the depths of the east wing.
Something about it set every hair on his arms on end and made his eyes water. The cry went in one ear, spun around behind his eyes for a few seconds, and exited with a bang from the other side of his head.
A fat chambermaid with bushy black hair huddled on the floor beside a suit of battle armor at the top of the stairs. He knelt beside her. She opened her eyes at his voice.
“Where is it?” he asked.
She pointed down the hallway. “I’ve been caring for Missus Delano…” She started crying. “…but I can’t stay, sir. I just can’t…with that noise—”
“Shhh. You’ve done your duty. I’ll see to it from here.”
“Bless you, sir. I’ll pray for ya, I will.” She pointed out Margaret’s door.
“Thank you.” The smell of sweat and healing herbs met him when he opened Margaret’s door. He saw nothing of her but a tuft of frizzy hair and a pile of squirming blankets in a four-poster bed, but her moans drifted into the hallway.
“Margaret, it’s Dorian.”
She didn’t give any sign she’d heard him. He considered offering her a glass of water, and then remembered Gregory’s final admonishment to keep back from her, for the sake of all Eclatant. He sat in a chair by the fireplace with his sword across his lap.
Perhaps he’d given the creature a clue as to Margaret’s whereabouts by opening the door. The cries rose in volume. He sensed a heightened urgency. Sweat beaded on the back of his neck.
He wasn’t sure what he expected. A blast of cold air, or maybe roiling smoke. There was nothing but the cry moving down the hall. Margaret went still in the bed. The banshee stepped into the room.
White skin, thick white hair flowing over its shoulders. Corpselike white. Otherwise it seemed nothing but a man, or maybe a woman, about his own height. It wore something like a pair of leggings and a tattered tunic. Its feet, wrapped in torn cloth of some kind, made no sound on the shiny wooden floor. It smelled, of all things, like honeysuckle.
Dorian stood, but the banshee didn’t notice him. It walked toward the bed. Dorian gripped his sword. “Ho, you there!”
The thing’s head turned with all the speed of a flower following the sun. Dorian thought it not truly male or female, but maybe a bit of both. It had fine, elegant features and bright blue eyes.
“You’ll not have her,” he said.
It turned back to the bed and took two steps forward. Dorian crossed the room and stood in front of it. “I said you’ll not have her.”
Still, nothing. The banshee stepped to his right. Dorian lifted his sword.
The effect was immediate. The sword glowed with the bright blue of the banshee’s eyes. Its mouth fell open, revealing a blood red mouth and sharp teeth. It hissed at the sword, and then screamed.
It was as if someone had struck a gong beside Dorian’s head. He couldn’t move.
The banshee struck with one white hand and narrowly missed knocking the sword from Dorian’s grip. It hissed again. Dorian took three steps back and brandished the weapon at it again. It crouched, and then leapt over his head. It clung to the ornate moldings lining the ceiling.
Fortunately, (or unfortunately, depending on how one looked at it), the banshee had no intention of staying out of reach on the ceiling. It let go of the molding and shot toward Dorian with a screech.
His sword caught its upraised arms with a reverberating crack, as if he’d struck granite, and to Dorian’s surprise a few droplets of cold red blood splashed across his face. He spun to follow its leaping progress around the room, but it was too fast. It hit him between the shoulder blades with two fists. He stumbled and fell on his knees.
The banshee landed on his back, and he felt a few ribs crack. It lifted his head and attempted to smash his face into the floor, but Dorian shifted and his nose bounced off his own forearm with a meaty crack. The banshees worried his shoulders, trying to get at the sword under his body. It squealed and gibbered, and a rain of cold spittle coated his neck. He bucked his hips and flipped over. The sword came around in a flying arc and struck the side of the banshee’s head. A dark red patch appeared in its long hair.
The banshee howled in surprise and wrapped its arms around its head. Dorian pedaled backward and sprung to his feet. The wounded creature scrambled onto the bed. Margaret’s body bounced as it tramped across the blankets.
“Get away from her!” Dorian screamed as it knelt beside Margaret. The banshee pointed one long finger at Margaret’s head.
Dorian raised his sword above his head with both hands and struck. The blade met the banshee’s arm. For the meanest of seconds, it ground through hard bone, before burying itself in the blankets. The banshee’s hand fell onto the bed. Blood sprayed across the room in thick gouts.
Impossible as it seemed, the banshee appeared to be struck dumb. Its sparkly blue eyes stared at the spraying stump, and watched Dorian with a gaping mouth. It clambered off the bed.
“You are bested.” Dorian held the sword before his face. It pulsed with blue light. “Leave this room.”
Still the banshee approached him. Still the unnatural silence.
“Leave,” he said again.
“Leave,” it whispered back. “Leave.”
The banshee stopped an arm’s width away. It held the stump up in front of Dorian like a Godsman presenting the chapel offering. The blood flow had slowed to a heavy gush. The banshee cocked the injured arm and swiped Dorian across the face with it. Before Dorian could react it repeated the favor with its good hand. Dorian’s lip exploded, and he felt his right eye swelling shut. He fell to his knees and cradled his head in his hands.
Later he would wonder if he’d lost consciousness. When he raised his head again, the banshee had disappeared.
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